Why conserve wetlands?
Wetlands are among the world's most productive environments. They are cradles of biological diversity, providing the water and primary productivity upon which countless species of plants and animals depend for survival. They support high concentrations of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrate species. Wetlands are also important storehouses of plant genetic material. Rice, for example, which is a common wetland plant, is the staple diet of more than half of humanity.
The multiple roles of wetland ecosystems and their value to humanity have been increasingly understood and documented in recent years. This has led to large expenditures to restore lost or degraded hydrological and biological functions of wetlands. But it's not enough – the race is on to improve practices on a significant global scale as the world's leaders try to cope with the accelerating water crisis and the effects of climate change. And this at a time when the world's population is likely to increase by 70 million every year for the next 20 years.
Global freshwater consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth. One third of the world's population today lives in countries already experiencing moderate to high water stress. By 2025, two out of every three people on Earth may well face life in water stressed conditions.
The ability of wetlands to adapt to changing conditions, and to accelerating rates of change, will be crucial to human communities and wildlife everywhere as the full impact of climate change on our ecosystem lifelines is felt. Small wonder that there is a worldwide focus on wetlands and their services to us.
Policy- and decision-makers frequently make development decisions based upon simple calculations of the monetary pros and cons of the proposals before them – the importance of wetlands for the environment and for human societies has traditionally been under-rated in these calculations because of the difficulty of assigning dollar values to the wetland ecosystem's values and benefits, goods and services. Thus, more and more economists and other scientists are working in the growing field of the valuation of ecosystem services. This is a difficult task, but in order for decision-makers to have the correct information before them about the comparable monetary values of a healthy wetland, the economic losses of a lost or degraded wetland, there is no choice but to progress in this direction. Some recent studies have indicated that ecosystems provide at least US$ 33 trillion worth of services annually, of which about US$ 4.9 trillion are attributed to wetlands.
In addition, wetlands are important, and sometimes essential, for the health, welfare and safety of people who live in or near them. They are amongst the world's most productive environments and provide a wide array of benefits.